George Washington might have the biggest library fines in history. On October 5, 1789, the president checked out two books from the New York Society Library (NYSL). But there are no records of the books being returned.
At the time, New York City was the U.S. capital. (The capital was moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1790 and then to Washington, D.C., in 1800.) The federal, or national, government was based in a building called Federal Hall. The library was in the same building. Many Founding Fathers checked out books there, including America’s second president, John Adams.
Library staff kept handwritten records of every book that was checked out. Those records have been carefully preserved. Five months after he was sworn in as president, Washington borrowed two books on government. They were due back on November 2, but there’s no return date listed in the records. No one can say for sure if those books ever made it back onto the library’s shelves.
That has led to 229 years of wondering: Was Washington too busy running a new country to bring back the books? Or did a librarian forget to write down the return date? Either way, the library has forgiven the fines.
“We’re willing to cut him a break,” says NYSL head librarian Carolyn Waters.